Issues

Happy New Year, Umbracians! Let's Start our Conversations Friendly

As a principle, I never make new year’s resolutions. They don’t stick and they’re mentally and emotionally defeating. There’s probably research out there that shows why, but honestly, I don’t care. I just know setting myself up for repeated failure is not my cup of tea. 

Instead I make goals and set intentions; I reflect on the last year and think of the person I want to be or become in the upcoming year and make incremental changes to my life that support the journey. This has worked really well for me the last few years and has led to some sustained changes for me in ways that new year’s resolutions never have.

I find intentions to be more personal — something that adds value to yourself, gives you aim and purpose. For example, I intend to be more aware and protective of my mental health this year. Goals are something you can measure and check-off, or as Merriam Webster defines it: the end toward which effort is directed. For example, if my intention is better self-care this year, one of my goals might be to go on a family camping trip this summer because nature and my family affect my mental health positively. Intentions and goals support each other.

As we’re now a month into 2022 and we’re past the initial hype a new year brings (read: I’m going to eat better, exercise more, drink less alcohol, spend less time on social media! All fantastic things, by the way), I thought we could set a community goal and intention together: Update our lexicon to be more inclusive by breaking the “guys” habit when referring to women or mixed-gender groups.

Is “Guys” Really Gender-Neutral?

This is where the controversy begins. In the English language there is a lack of gender-neutral pronouns. The historical exclusion of women in many aspects of society coupled with men being seen as the “default” being has led to “guys” dominating the classification of groups of people, all people.[1] And it’s not just “guys'' either. The default is to use masculine generics — meaning she/her is female only, whereas he and his can be male-specific or used in a generic sense. But is it really gender-neutral?

It is not a huge surprise that many men do believe “guys” is gender-neutral, often citing the dictionary as both proof and validation. So while using “guys” or other masculine generics may be grammatically correct in referring to both sexes, if using “guys” represented men and women equally, there would be no consequences of that. However, professors Michela Menegatti and Monica Rubini state, “Experimental research has clearly demonstrated that masculine generic does not depict women and men as equal human beings and that it makes females invisible in people imagery and memory, thus failing to perform its assigned generic function.” [2]

An example of this I’ve seen around the internet in various forms is to think of 10 famous guys. Or 10 congressmen. Or 10 craftsmen. What’s your mental picture? In all the iterations of this I've seen, women are not included in that list. Until women achieve equal status with men, and stereotypical female traits and roles aren't seen as insults to men (ie you hit like a girl), masculine generic words such as "guys" will never truly be gender-neutral.

Using gender-inclusive language results in more balanced mental representations. In an industry such as tech where it is still very heavily male dominated, mental representation and feelings of inclusion and belonging are particularly important. Even if there are women in your life who use the term “guys” themselves and say they are not bothered by it, there are many others who are bothered by it; many who view it as minimizing and a part of a larger structure of exclusion that women do face. 

Alternatives

The great thing about English is there are a lot of alternatives and it doesn’t ultimately cost you anything to make whomever you’re speaking to feel included in the conversation.

  • Umbracians
  • Team
  • Everyone
  • Folks / Folx
  • People
  • Friends
  • You all
  • Y’all
  • All (as in, Hi All!)

Or don’t use any of them. Instead of saying “hey guys, let's go for a coffee,” how about “hey, let’s go for a coffee!”

Change can be awkward; it feels weird, and it can make us defensive to receive a correction from someone. But it isn’t about you. If we are truly a friendly community, we should be doing our part to make sure everyone feels seen, heard, and included. Using “guys” is needlessly harmful and we can and should do better. So that is my challenge to you this year: let’s be intentional about our words and eradicate “guys” from our vocabulary unless you are truly talking to or about a group of men and men only. I hope you’ll join me in the journey.

Recommended articles for a deeper understanding

Erica Quessenberry

Fellow Skrift co-founder Erica Quessenberry is a pre-pandemic world wanderer turned domestic road-tripping camper and vegan foodie who is happiest when out experiencing all nature has to offer. A 5x Umbraco MVP, she is an independent UX/UI consultant who works with Umbraco devs around the world improving experiences and interfaces and strives at amplifying diverse voices and sharing knowledge through Skrift Magazine. She understands the value of being a part of a community and is keen on helping others get involved and feel welcome and seen.

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